Christian hymns often move us deeply, inspire us to live more fully and faithfully, and sustain us through life’s challenging times.
“O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.”
“Great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see.”
“’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Then there are some hymn lyrics that are just plain weird. How often did we sing “here I raise my Ebenezer” with no idea of what that meant?
In case you still don’t, my Bible scholar colleague Tony W. Cartledge, writer of the newly released Nurturing Faith Commentary, as well as an extensive earlier commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel, explains it well.
Samuel had been absent for a few chapters (1 Sam. 4:1-7:2, an excerpt from the “Ark Narrative”) in the biblical text that bears his name.
But in 1 Samuel 7:3, Tony noted, Samuel emerges “large and in charge.”
“He calls Israel to a convocation at Mizpah, calls them to repentance, and leads them to a surprising and resounding victory over the Philistines, pursuing them ‘as far as beyond Beth-car’ — some 16 miles northwest of Mizpah,” said Tony.
“Near there, Samuel erected a standing stone as a massebah (monument),” Tony continued, “and named it ‘Ebenezer,’ saying ‘Thus far Yahweh has helped us’” (1 Sam. 7:12).
So eben-‘ezer means “stone of help.”
Obviously, Robert Robinson understood that biblical reference when penning the hymn, “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing,” in 1758.
Tony noted that the hymn’s line, “hither by thy help I’m come,” echoes the ancient affirmation “thus far the LORD has helped us” in 1 Samuel 7:12.
But with that good information aside, let me note that the oddest hymn title to me has long been “Take Time to Be Holy.”
That whole construct is peculiar. Exactly how does one “take time to be holy”?
“Want to come over for coffee?” a friend asks.
“Well, I would, but first let me take time to be holy. So, give me about 15 minutes.”
Or a glance at one’s daily calendar reveals: “Meeting at 2. Workout at 5. Dinner at 7. Holiness at…?”
Using one’s time well for spiritual disciplines as well as other ways to balance life is well understood and deeply appreciated.
But when and how and why does one “take time to be holy”? Is there a wrist-worn “Faithbit” available for keeping count?
Perhaps the wording of this hymn title was some 19th century British phrasing that writer William Dunn Longstaff employed and that others generally understood.
The hymn’s other lyrics certainly make sense — encouraging the good use of time for prayer, helping the weak, remembering one’s blessings, experiencing calm amid the storms, being led to “fountains of love” and being “fitted for service.”
It’s the whole idea of holiness that throws me a curve. Expectations of holiness seem too high and not particularly desirable — and, therefore, not something that tends to be scheduled.
My preference is for seeking faithfulness since that word comes in degrees — and doesn’t emit images of haloes or get confused with the offensive holier-than-thou perception.
It’s worth noting, however, that even confusing, odd and likely outdated wording and imagery can be constructive. In fact, here we are — centuries later — thinking about them and noting their realities.
While we may not take time to be holy, we can use a reminder to slow down and spend our time for better purposes than the selfish pursuit of temporal things.
And while it’s unlikely we’ll raise any Ebenezers today, we can affirm that “thus far the LORD has helped us” — even when uncertain of all the ways that occurs. And just the realization that sustaining faith long preceded us carries meaning.
In fact, one of the biggest mistakes we make is thinking that our current understandings and practices of religious faith — greatly shaped by our own limited experiences and cultural influences — are somehow the proper way faith has always been understood and practiced.
But there are some consistencies. Across the centuries the primary messages of love, grace, mercy and hope are timeless.
However, language is always evolving. That’s why we sing Isaac Watts’ classics “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World,” rather than his 1719 hymn, “Blest is the Man Whose Bowels Move.”
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.